Last night, three of our favourite YA authors – Holly Smale, Holly Bourne and CJ Daugherty – descended on Waterstones Piccadilly (one of the most magical places in the world) to talk about feminism in YA with book journalist Anna James.
Just as everything kicked off, Anna began by defining feminism: social, economic and financial quality between men and women. There was a little cheer after she said that! And then she launched into the juicy stuff.
The first idea that was discussed was what makes YA books feminist, and what makes their books in particular feminist.
Holly Smale, author of the bestselling ‘Geek Girl’ series, started us off by telling us how she wanted to “show girls and boys [that there’s] no male and female in how we act” and went on to say that “we’re all breaking that feminist egg in a big omelette” which became a running joke throughout the event! Basically, she meant that everyone has a different story, different characters and different ideas about presenting feminism, but it’s still all feminism.
Holly Bourne’s books, particularly ‘The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting’ and ‘Are We Normal Yet?’, are more explicitly feminist than Holly S’s and she wanted ‘The Spinster Club’ series to be an “ABC intro to feminism” and lead readers into realising that there’s something wrong in how they’re treated – the answer: feminism! She wanted to show “a girl, or male, character not putting up with gender bullshit”.
This lead on the discussion of strong female characters that’s been going on in the book world since dystopian fiction took over the shelves – are we past that term?
CJ Daugherty, author of ‘Night School’ and ‘The Secret Fire’, doesn’t think so. Her characters are aspirational. She wants to be as brave and fierce as Allie and Taylor, and she wants those girls to inspire readers. Holly Smale agreed that it’s “one step towards feminism”. That quickly morphed into what is seen as feminism as Holly writes about models! To her, a feminist character, regardless of what they do, wear, say, is “a character doing something they don’t want to do” and bravery is feminism. Holly B agreed: we need to “take back the idea that bravery has to be saving the entire dystopian universe […] you can be a feminist and want to have a boyfriend”.
Then Holly S raised a really interesting point: would ‘How I Met Your Mother’ have been so successful if it had been a woman searching for love for seven years rather than a man? We’d never even considered that before…
Anna then asked the authors if YA has a responsibility to talk about feminism and if that effects how they write. CJ surprised everyone with the revelation that readers picked up on the lack of feminism book one in the ‘Night School’ series; they wanted Allie to save herself, rather than constantly being rescued. It changed the way CJ approached the rest of the series. See, reader feedback is important!
Holly S has always been a “die-hard feminist”, ever since she chased a boy around, hitting him with a stick for saying she couldn’t do something that he could and all of her favourite children’s books had the common denominator of “strong female characters going on adventures”! Feminism as always been at the forefront for her. You have to be “true to the book, the character you’re writing […] while showing girls what they’re capable of”; YA authors have a “responsibility to motivate and inspire”.
One of the most interesting discussions on the night came from Anna asking about the place of men in the feminism discussion. Holly Bourne had a very strong message for men wanting to learn about feminism: “listen to why I’m angry…try to understand”. People in a privileged position should listen to those who are being oppressed rather than talk. Be part of the conversation, but listen and make sure that women aren’t objects to look at while men are objects to listen to. CJ added, “We don’t win by leaving men out of the conversation”.
Linked to this idea of listening to other people and their experiences was a very important question from an audience member: Where’s the intersectional feminism? Intersectional feminism just means feminism from the point of view of people of colour, people of differing gender identities, sexualities, cultures, races and religions.
CJ believes that this will be the next movement in YA; it’s reaching “critical mass”. We agree. All you have to do is look at the fantastic discussions happening on Twitter to see the push for diversity in all areas of publishing. But as Holly S says, publishing is slow. Those diverse authors and books that have been signed over the last two years won’t be on the shelves until 2017/18, but they are coming.
We’ve only just scratched the surface of the wonderful topics and ideas that were covered last night, but we’re going to leave you with a final thought from Holly Smale:
Feminist writings have always been there (‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the Brontes, Jane Austen, ‘The Awakening’) and they’ll continue to be around. They may change and develop, but there will always be “female voices saying really inspirational thing over and over again”.
What are your favourite feminist YA novels? Discuss with us @maximumpopbooks!
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